Photos of China’s new aircraft carrier are leaking out, and they appear to show a modern flattop in the making

liaoning aircraft carrier
China commissioned its first carrier, the Liaoning, in 2012. Since then, it has added another, and a third is on the way. Experts say it could be a “huge step” for China.

  • Over the past week, a number of photos of China’s third aircraft carrier have leaked out online.
  • The photos appear to show a ship that is very different from the first two Chinese carriers.
  • “It is not a US carrier,” one expert said, “but it’s still a huge step for China.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China’s third aircraft carrier, which is expected to be the country’s first modern flattop, is starting to take shape at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, new images that have steadily been leaking out online appear to show.

Prior to 2012, China did not have any aircraft carriers, but over the years, it has managed to develop a modest carrier capability.

China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong.

China built the first from the refitted hull of an old Soviet vessel. The second, which was China’s first indigenously produced aircraft carrier, was a larger, slightly improved copy of the Liaoning.

But the latest images of China’s third carrier, gathered from Chinese social media and posted on Twitter by Chinese military expert Andreas Rupprecht, hint at what has long been expected of this new ship – that it is likely going to be a step forward for the country’s aircraft-carrier program.

There are still a number of unknowns, but as more and more photos come out, they are painting a clearer picture of how the construction of this new ship, a still unnamed ship designated as the Type 003, is progressing.

There have even been some up-close shots of the new aircraft carrier.

And, some online observers have already started trying to work out exactly what the carrier will look like based on the images of the ongoing construction, though experts suggest it might be still be too early to tell.

Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow and China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, looked at satellite imagery of the construction efforts at Jiangnan this week.

“They still have not put the island in place. They are still working on the flight deck. There’s still quite a lot of work to be done,” he explained to Insider. That being said, some things about the ship are starting to become clearer.

The new vessel is noticeably larger than the first two carriers, giving China the ability to field a bigger and more diverse air wing, a necessary step as China works to build a modern navy able to project power farther from its shores.

Considering the development of China’s third aircraft carrier, as well as China’s interests, he said that there is reason to suspect it will have some kind of catapult system for launching carrier aircraft, but that has not yet been confirmed.

“They’re still working on the front of the vessel,” Funaiole said. “It is very likely that the ship is going to have some type of catapult system. We are still trying to figure out what that’s going to look like, but it’s hard to imagine it not having a catapult system.”

“It wouldn’t really make sense, as far as what China is aiming to do with its carrier program, to have another ski-ramp style carrier,” he said.

His assessment is consistent with Department of Defense observations.

Construction of the Type 003 aircraft carrier began in 2018. The next year, the Department of Defense released an assessment of the project, writing that the ship “will likely be larger” than the Liaoning and Shandong “and fitted with a catapult launch system.”

“This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations,” the department report said.

Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier
Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier.

The first two Chinese aircraft carriers both use ski-jump-assisted short-takeoff-but-arrested-recovery (STOBAR) launch systems to sortie aircraft. This design can be seen on other aircraft carriers like Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.

Ski jumps are significantly less effective than the steam or electromagnetic catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) launch systems that US carriers use because they lower the maximum take-off weight for carrier-based aircraft.

The design presents certain problems for the Chinese Shenyang J-15, China’s primary carrier-based fighter.

The aircraft, which is based on an incomplete prototype of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based air-superiority fighter that China acquired from Ukraine and then reverse engineered, is one of the heaviest carrier fighters out there.

Shenyang J-15 'Flying Shark' fighter jets aboard China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning
J-15 “Flying Shark” fighter jets aboard China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier.

The J-15 is a capable multirole fighter, and it can carry a decent amount of weapons and fuel.

The big problem is that the design of China’s current aircraft carriers means it can take off with only a small fraction of the weapons and fuel it was designed to carry, significantly reducing its range and overall combat capability.

Fighter jets and helicopters are seen on board China's aircraft carrier Liaoning
Fighter jets and helicopters are aboard Liaoning.

Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, previously told Insider that “with a ski-slope configuration, weight becomes your enemy, and the J-15, as a heavy airplane, starts to be the victim of its own design.”

A modern carrier equipped with “catapults would allow the J-15’s advantages to come into play,” he said. Reporting, as well as some leaked imagery, suggests that China is already developing a CATOBAR variant of the J-15.

There are also indications that China may already be looking beyond the J-15 for its carrier fighter. It has been speculated that the FC-31, a Chinese stealth fighter that is still in development, might be the next carrier fighter.

This week, photos showing an FC-31 mockup on the “flight deck” of a concrete carrier in Wuhan surfaced online. The undated photos appear to offer some support to theories about next step’s for Chinese naval aviation.

“They’re in a place now where they’re understanding how to build aircraft carriers, but figuring out the naval aviation side of it is still an area where China still has some unknowns,” Funaiole said, explaining that “it’s likely they’re going to explore all available options to figure out what’s going to work best.”

He said China appears to be making great strides advancing its carrier program. “It is not a US carrier as things are today,” he said of China’s third aircraft carrier, “but it’s still a huge step for China. It’s impressive what they have been able to do in a short amount of time.”

The new aircraft carrier, though it might be a while before the final design is clear, looks to be a “pretty significant upgrade from where they are at right now,” Funaiole said. “But this is where you get into the question of what does this actually mean in practice.”

“The biggest struggle for China isn’t going to be the technology,” he said. “It’s going to be the personnel. And that’s not a knock on the Chinese. They’re just new to it.”

China aircraft carrier
China’s first domestically developed aircraft carrier departs Dalian, May 13, 2018.

China has the world’s largest navy, according to the Pentagon, and it is building new ships faster than any other country. But China is still learning what it means to have a great power navy.

While it will inevitably take China time to develop the carrier operations knowledge and experience to go along with its expanding fleet of flattops, the country’s newest carrier suggests the country is making clear progress as it strives to build a world-class combat force by the middle of this century.

The Pentagon said last year, in its most recent assessment of China’s military power, that the third Chinese carrier will likely be operational by 2024, with additional aircraft carriers to follow later.

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